Georgia Today: What's Behind An Alleged White Supremacist Conspiracy In Floyd County?
The deadly Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol building by a pro-Trump mob was a glimpse into what many experts have long warned: Homegrown extremism is on the rise across the U.S. On Georgia Today, guest Chris Joyner from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution speaks on what’s known about violent white supremacist groups operating in Georgia.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today; I'm Steve Fennessy. For many Americans, the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol building by a mob of pro-Trump supporters was a shocking glimpse of what many investigators have long warned: that homegrown extremism is on the rise in the United States. The threat posed by anti-government militias and other violent groups was detailed in a recent intelligence report to Congress. The report includes calls for more resources to combat extremist groups, including white supremacists. Investigators say such groups could organize mass casualty attacks. In this episode of Georgia Today, we hear about an alleged neo-Nazi terror cell in Floyd County known as The Base.
News tape WJZ13: The Base wanted to attack a gun rights rally to try and start a race war.
Steve Fennessy: I'm joined by Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Chris Joyner. His story reveals the latest indictments connected to the alleged neo-Nazi group.
Chris, this is a bizarre story. Over a year ago, we heard of this alleged plot by a bunch of white supremacists in northwest Georgia to kill a couple who were supposedly part of Antifa. And now we're hearing some of the same people who are plotting that murder were also sacrificing animals in some kind of ritual. So what in the world is going on in Floyd County?
Chris Joyner: I know, it's a pretty wild story. These people allegedly were part of a —really, what's a transnational terror organization known as The Base that was established in 2018 and was essentially what they call an accelerationist group, which means this is a really, really radical far-right type of group that seeks to accelerate the downfall of Western society. And in the rubble of that, they would erect a white ethno-state, sort of a fascist heaven, as far as they're concerned. And the idea behind The Base was there would be these sort of semi-autonomous cells that would form and they would carry out real-world terrorism as a way of accelerating the downfall of the United States. They had been communicating on encrypted internet chats and were meeting in-person to discuss sort of how they would carry out what they believed would be an assassination of a couple they thought were leftist leaders. One of the reasons that the ram or goat killing is interesting is because it was allegedly part of a pagan sacrifice. And there's a certain brand of what they call folkish paganism that is popular in white supremacist circles.
Steve Fennessy: What exactly did they do and why did they do it?
Chris Joyner: According to the indictments, a number of them were involved in stealing the animal from a nearby property, making some sort of attempt to kill it with a knife and eventually shooting it. Then they beheaded it and they posed with pictures dressed up in fatigues and masks. And so that became part of their propaganda. Ancient Norse mythology is sort of what they're into.
Steve Fennessy: Are they self-funded? I mean, when they are attracting somebody from Maryland or from Alabama, are they just quitting their job if they have one and just moving to Floyd County? How does that work?
Chris Joyner: I think this is a very shoestring operation. They're not particularly well-funded, but it doesn't have to be particularly well-funded. But the very fact that they're willing to come from the D.C. area, from across the border in Canada, come all the way from Texas, just shows that it's not about money for them, it's not about their resources. It's about how they're driven by their ideology to do that. These cells were supposed to, for operational-security reasons, be sort of on their own.
Steve Fennessy: That sounds a lot like how al-Qaida operated. Right?
Chris Joyner: There’s, I think, between far-right accelerationists and jihadi radical Islamists, there are a lot of commonalities in that way, in particularly how they choose to operate.
Steve Fennessy: And was The Base was that founded in the United States?
Chris Joyner: Yes, it has United States origins, although after the arrests of these people and another adjacent cell that was broken up in the D.C. area, it was determined that the founder of The Base was actually operating out of St. Petersburg, Russia. He was an American expat who had apparently moved over there and was operating from inside Russia.
News tape WJZ13: Last night, British publication The Guardian published an article appearing to reveal the identity of The Base's secret leader as Rinaldo Nazarro. Interestingly, they found many members of The Base believe that leader might be a government agent and that some government groups believe he might be a Russian agent. Regardless, Nazarro, the report says, has long spoken of a dream of overthrowing the government and creating an all-white ethno-state in the Pacific Northwest.
Steve Fennessy: As we talk about the cell that formed in Floyd County, do we have an idea of kind of what its origin story was?
Chris Joyner: The arrests came down in January of last year and we had three Georgia suspects. So we had an idea from the documents that came out in those indictments, including the report of an undercover officer who had infiltrated that cell, what was going on. We knew there were more people, but we didn't know who they were. Now, this most recent round of indictments that came down in March gives us a better idea because the three Georgia men who were arrested were charged with the murder plot. These new indictments bring in some other people on the animal cruelty charges, the sacrificing of a ram or a goat. It shows that we had members from Texas and a man from outside of Birmingham. One person was from Floyd County. And they came there because allegedly he had the land that they could go, they could conduct their training, they could make their plans. It was rural. It was relatively isolated. So he had that.
Steve Fennessy: What are they doing there? When you say training, what does that involve?
Chris Joyner: So, they're shooting guns. They're talking about, you know in sort of broad ways their philosophy and their desire to become operational as a cell — you know, conduct some sort of violent incursion somewhere. And part of it was this plan to assassinate this couple in Bartow County. According to the undercover investigator’s affidavit, there was a real anxiousness among some of them to sort of get their hands dirty in this far-right white supremacist fight that they believed they were part of.
News tape WJZ13: The neo-Nazi networks stood out to investigators because they moved beyond rhetoric into actual militant preparation. “The Base” is actually a rough English translation of “al-Qaida.” One member caught on tape talking about derailing trains, killing people and poisoning water supplies.
Steve Fennessy: So do we know what steps these men in Floyd County were allegedly taking to carry the plot to kill this couple?
Chris Joyner: Their plans had matured to the point where they were buying material: brass bags to pick up shells that had been spent from their assault rifles so they wouldn't leave any evidence behind, that kind of thing. You know, it was a fairly advanced plot, according to the investigators. Both federal and state authorities had been keeping a close eye on this group, despite all their attempts to be secure and only talk on encrypted apps. There's a twin desire on [the] part of these groups to also recruit and sort of build their brand as they were videoing their firearms training and they set it to music. It's very stylized. Accelerationist groups, like The Base and some other ones, they go after young people.
News tape, TM Garret, former neo-Nazi and KKK leader: When I was recruited, they presented it to me like: We have the over-powerful enemy who wants to destroy our people and I can be a superhero who can save my people. And honestly, which kid doesn't want to be a superhero? That is great. So I could be that superhero and I wanted to do that.
Chris Joyner: People who are in their late teens, early 20s, who are radicalized online and are looking for something to join.
Steve Fennessy: How much is that growing?
Chris Joyner: Certainly the profile of some of these groups have grown a lot in the past year, year-and-a-half. The pandemic is one of the reasons why. One, a lot of them live off paranoia and conspiracy theories and the pandemic has provided that in spades. And the run-up to the 2020 national elections was another reason why. It was a hotly contested election. A lot of people were concerned about it, and fringe groups use that as an opportunity to further radicalize people online and bring them in.
Steve Fennessy: I mean, is there any connection between the results of the election and a greater interest in recruiting and building up these organizations?
Chris Joyner: Prior to Jan. 6, yes. I think Jan. 6 was such a disruptive event that it's been hard for those organizations to find their footing afterwards. A lot of the country was horrified by what they saw on Jan. 6, clearly, and that, I think, was disruptive for groups that felt like they were on the right side of history. Right. The Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers or the Three Percent militia groups that turned out believed that this was an inflection point for their movement. And when it turned out not to be and a lot of them ended up getting arrested …
News tape: At the Capitol, some rioters openly expressed support for Qanon.
News tape: Jacob Chansley, also known as the "Qanon shaman," he faces multiple felony and misdemeanor charges for his alleged role in the storming of the Capitol.
Chris Joyner: And some of them are charged with very serious crimes that could put them in prison for decades. That's been disruptive for those groups, which makes it harder for them to recruit. Now, for some of these smaller, even more violent, even more radical groups, these accelerationist groups? These were not groups that have an investment in the American system. In fact, they want to tear it down. So Jan. 6th, I think, looks very much like a victory for them because it's chaotic, it's disruptive. They believe, I think, that it brings them closer to what they want, which is total dissolution of American society.
Steve Fennessy: Chris, is there any evidence that any of the Georgia based members participated in the uprising on Jan. 6?
Chris Joyner: There were accelerationist groups that were there. And one of the things that really concerned a lot of people who watch the far right is that an event like Jan. 6 put those different groups side-by-side, essentially moving together. And that kind of networking is always fragile among extremist groups. But you don't want Three Percent militia people next to — another accelerationist group that was there was the Rise Above Movement, very violent group. You don't want those people shaking hands, getting to know each other, finding commonalities. That was what was concerning about the “Stop the Steal” rallies, is that they put these people who — generally, they cannot get along for ideological reasons, but they can make temporary alliances for specific goals. And that's problematic.
Steve Fennessy: Stay tuned for more of my conversation with Chris Joyner. We'll hear more about law enforcement efforts to crack down on domestic extremist groups such as the base. This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy, I'm joined by Chris Joyner with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. We're talking about the alleged neo-Nazi group The Base. Joyner's reporting indicates that The Base is part of a constellation of domestic extremist organizations, including some that have been charged in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Chris, you've covered these movements a long time. What insight do you have and to what creates the state of mind that would drive somebody to one of these fringe groups? You know, the Three Percenters or The Base?
Chris Joyner: A lot of these people are looking for a community where they can express their sort of their feeling of shared grievance; that their lives are not how they anticipated they would be or they believe they're being held back in some way. And a lot of this radicalization takes place online and revolves around conspiracy theories and a misreading of history. So that's what's driving a lot of these people. Increasingly, now, if you look at how Facebook and Twitter and mainline social media networks have begun kicking these people off …
News tape: After the attack on the U.S. Capitol, Twitter and Facebook got a lot more aggressive in trying to crack down on the baseless conspiracy theory known as Qanon.
News tape: And Trump was kicked off Twitter, Facebook and Google's YouTube after urging his supporters to go to the Capitol.
Chris Joyner: They're moving into smaller and more radicalized corners of the Internet: Telegram and Gab and some other places where they can go and only talk to each other and only hear each other. You know, it becomes a really powerful, radical echo chamber for them. And that's part of the radicalization process as well. How can they further draw these people who have shown a curiosity and make them into recruits?
Steve Fennessy: Chris, you said earlier that The Base hopes to organize attacks like Oklahoma City. And we just passed the 26th anniversary of the attack on the federal building there back in 1995.
News tape KOCO: On April 19, 1995, an explosion in downtown Oklahoma City killed 168 people and injured hundreds more. That Wednesday morning became a day the city and the entire country would never forget.
News tape KOCO: We see smoke rising from downtown and I recall the front of the building just gone. It was so difficult to get your mind around all of the damage and everything that had happened down there.
Steve Fennessy: I know that the Biden Department of Justice has made far right domestic extremist groups a priority, and it's actually led by Merrick Garland, who investigated the Oklahoma City bombing plot. To what degree are the events there, and the people like Timothy McVeigh who organized them, rallying cries for these fringe groups?
Chris Joyner: Well, someone like Timothy McVeigh, in certain areas of, you know, violent extremism, he's considered sort of a saint. Far-right heroes, extremist heroes, certain books that everybody is encouraged to read, that's what builds these groups up. And because they've been deplatformed on YouTube or Facebook. Now you kind of wonder what they're up to. They're a little bit harder, a little harder to track. One of the things that I'm really concerned about right now is what happens with these smaller groups in the coming months and years. Do they continue to gather strength? Do they — do they become operational? I know that's what really frightens and concerns federal law enforcement. The FBI in particular is very concerned about the spread of that kind of radical anti-government philosophy.
Steve Fennessy: Domestic terrorism.
Chris Joyner: Exactly.
Steve Fennessy: So can you talk a little bit about how law enforcement coordinates among each other? Because obviously there are many tiers of policing. You know, we got the FBI, you got GBI, you've got sheriff's departments and local police departments. How effective are they at working together? Is there — do they have a shared database?
Chris Joyner: Well, in the Floyd County case, they were apparently worked pretty effectively because that's a joint federal and local investigation. And the undercover officer, I believe, was a local officer. A lot of this intelligence is supposedly shared through regional what they call fusion centers, which is state and federal and local law enforcement, gather intelligence and share it through these centers. There's one in Atlanta. They’re all around the nation. So that's one way that they're doing it. And that's a product of attempting to make intelligence sharing after Sept. 11, 2001, more seamless between the jurisdictions. At least since 2019, there's been a real concerted effort by the FBI and the ATF and other parts of the federal law enforcement to get in and disrupt these groups. We've seen people charged and arrested on domestic violence charges and other things, but the idea is getting in there and disrupt the leadership, cut the head off of some of these organizations so that they essentially fall apart. Some of them fall apart on their own just because of the unstable individuals who are leading the groups. One of the things I think you're seeing since Jan. 6 is how serious Congress is now taking it.
United States Congress hearing: Today, we'll examine the bloody trail violent white supremacy’s now splattered across America.
Chris Joyner: Sort of get a better understanding of what's going on.
United States Congress hearing: But according to the Anti-Defamation League, 75% of all extremist-related murders between 2009 and 2018 were committed by right wing extremists. In 2020, they found that over 90% of political attacks were conducted by right-wing groups. These are the facts.
Steve Fennessy: And in terms of the Floyd County case, we've got the indictments against the three individuals regarding the alleged murder plot and then now we have the more recent indictments about the animal sacrifice. Are there any more indictments expected?
Chris Joyner: The three original Georgia men are still in jail. They're being held without bond. That case has moved extraordinarily slowly because of the pandemic. The other two men, the last I was — the one in Alabama and the one in Texas who were named in the most recent indictment — the last I was able to find out, have not been arrested. That could change, obviously. There are three other suspects: the two men from the Maryland-D.C. area and the Canadian military reservist. They're being held in Maryland in federal detention.
News tape WJZ13: Three men accused of being members of a violent white supremacist group called The Base have pleaded not guilty to the federal charges filed against them here in Maryland. Prosecutors say 33-year-old Brian Lemley Jr., a 19-year-old, William Bilbrough — circled in this picture — along with Canadian national Patrik Mathews planned to commit violence during a gun rally in Virginia last month.
Chris Joyner: My pet theory has always been they did not want to pop that Rome cell when they did because although they were planning on this assassination, they kept kicking it down the road. They were going to do it tomorrow. People who were in Maryland, they were on their way to go do something. So they had to arrest them. But once they arrested them, they had to arrest the other guys because it was all part of the same investigation. If you're going to get them, you better get them quick before they got wind of what had happened and made themselves scarce.
Steve Fennessy: How worried should we be about all this?
Chris Joyner: There's reason to be concerned just for the health of society that this is going on. A group like The Base did not get up and get operational and the arrests have crippled that group. It's got a poor reputation now in the far right, because people got arrested and there were people who had infiltrated the group. And I still don't think we have a really good answer for how to balance people's right to associate — and hold even extreme and distasteful views — with keeping order and peace and keeping our democratic institutions strong. You know, so I think, like in other periods of American history, this is something we're just we're having to live with and deal with on the fly.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chris Joyner. He says he'll be watching as the investigation into The Base continues. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has made investigating domestic extremist groups a top priority. His pick for attorney general was Merrick Garland. Garland led the investigation and prosecution of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The attack killed 168 people, including 19 children.
Merrick Garland: The Department of Justice is pouring its resources into stopping domestic violent extremists before they can attack and prosecuting those who do and battling the spread of the kind of hate that leads to tragedies like the one we marked today. We must all stand together against them for the safety of our communities and for the good of our country.
Steve Fennessy: For more Georgia Today, go to GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple. Jess Mador and Jahi Whitehead are Georgia Today's producers. Our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.